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Audit Lauds Overtime Cuts by Fire Department

Budget: Follow-up to 1993 review commends reduction from $6.5 million to a $4.9 million. But report calls for further steps.


Despite spending $8.5 million on overtime and special cash bonuses last year, a new audit of the Ventura County Fire Department found that it has taken "significant steps in improving its operations."

The audit released Monday said the department has made several changes to correct problems with excessive overtime and sick leave payments that had been noted in a 1993 financial review. The new report is a follow-up to the previous study.

"The fire district should be commended for shifting from defending the status quo to seizing the opportunity to move forward," Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon wrote in his seven-page report. "We believe the corrective actions taken were an enhancement over that suggested in the [1993] audit report."

But Mahon's report also said the Fire Department could do even more to reduce overtime costs, including expanding its reserve firefighter program of which there are only 13 members.

"Obviously, everybody is looking at overtime, and we believe that there are still some areas that they can work on to reduce it," Mahon said in an interview. "The use of more reserves would be one way of doing it."

The auditor's report found that the department has slashed overtime spending from $6.5 million in 1992-93 to a projected $4.9 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Sick leave dropped from 49,000 hours to 41,000.

But a Times survey found that as recently as last year the department spent $7.1 million of its $50-million budget on overtime. An additional $1.4 million was spent on educational bonuses and special pay for firefighters who work odd shifts or perform special tasks.

The survey found that 103 people in the 450-employee department earned more than $80,000 last year, the largest number of highly paid employees in any county department. Nearly all of these workers received between $10,000 and $50,000 on top of their regular salaries, primarily through overtime, records show.

Four fire officials made more money last year--mostly through overtime--than Fire Chief James Sewell, whose gross income was $101,537.

Mahon's report downplayed the findings of The Times survey. It pointed out, for example, that only 20 Fire Department employees collected more than $90,000 with overtime and cash benefits last year.

"While relatively few in number, such payments foster the public perception that significant abuse of overtime exists," Mahon wrote.

The auditor-controller, whose son Christopher is a county fire captain, said that it is still cheaper to pay overtime than to hire new personnel, who drive up costs with their mandatory benefit and retirement plans.

Some critics, however, have argued that newly hired firefighters work at a significantly lower pay rate than veteran firefighters and therefore it would be cheaper to hire more full-time personnel.

Although the county might save money in the short term by doing this, Mahon said, the long-term costs of adding firefighters can be extremely high. He pointed out, for example, that firefighters can retire as early as age 50 with nearly all of their benefits.

"Our position is that it's still cheaper to pay overtime," he said. "But we are going to go back and do another check on this."

Fire Chief James Sewell, who was hired from the San Diego Fire Department two years ago, welcomed the auditor's findings and said that his department is continuing to look for ways to reduce operating costs.

"We're pleased that the auditor has recognized our progress," he said. "As for the overtime, there are other areas that we are looking at to make sure that we are running as efficiently as possible."

Sewell attributed much of the department's overtime costs last year to the extra work required by the heavy flooding in early 1995 and the La Conchita mudslide. He said the remainder of the overtime went to cover for vacancies and employees on vacation or sick leave.

The chief said the department has instituted a temporary promotion program that has helped bring overtime costs down.

The program works this way: When a fire captain is out on sick leave for an extended period of time, a lower-ranking fire engineer can be temporarily promoted to replace him, Sewell said.

"This costs less than using another fire captain," he said. "It's also good for career development because it helps get people ready for their next position. It's on-the-job training."

As for sick leave, Sewell said he is pleased that it has dropped by 8,000 hours since 1993. He attributed this in part to the increased awareness about the department's stepped-up monitoring of sick leave use and employee work schedules.

The chief said he also plans to implement an annual "physical abilities test" to keep close tabs on the health and fitness of all department employees. This is intended to help reduce the $3.3 million in workers' compensation disability payments the county pays out annually, he said.

Firefighters who do not pass the test will be given a second chance, Sewell said. If they still don't pass, then the individual would either be reassigned to another job or possibly "we would let them go," he said.

Meanwhile, Supervisor John K. Flynn, who has been critical of Fire Department overtime, said he believed that "things are going in the right direction . . . but that [overtime] needs to continue to come down."

"We have to closely monitor the excesses," Flynn said. "We have to be on the ball when it comes to work schedules. Even if it is only a few people who are working the system, these excesses are not acceptable to me nor should they be to anyone."

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